Outer Labs
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Outer Labs

Staying Connected: Working Remotely for the First Time

One person’s perspective on being part of a fully remote team for the first time.

Outer Labs created positive channels for communication and opportunities for trust building so I don’t get lost remotely.

When I joined Outer Labs a year ago, I walked into my first full-time engineering gig and first full-time remote gig at the same time. I’d need to learn how my new team worked together, understand the architectural software industry, and grasp a new programming language all at the same time — it was daunting.

Over the last eight months, I’ve been grateful for the organization that I’ve become a part of, and I want to share some of the processes that Outer Labs has built to support our remote team. While many of our processes are similar to standard tech practices, I think Outer Labs has done a unique job in creating a welcoming and participatory environment for these processes and how they evolve over time.

I find that clear, trusting communication is of the utmost importance in most relationships — and building trust becomes all the more challenging when working remotely. Much of my reflection is about how our organization has created positive channels for communication and opportunities for trust building, and my experience in interacting with those channels.

Organization-Wide Processes

There are two main weekly meetings that keep everyone abreast of the latest company happenings, build camaraderie, and help us get to know one another. The first is called What’s New? and the second is TGIF.

What’s new?

What’s New? is our leadership-led all-hands meeting. Our co-founders were inspired by a book about Google’s internal practices. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, would ask his team, “What’s different today?” This opened up dynamic conversations about what actually mattered in the moment, instead of what hasn’t happened (as most status meetings become). At Outer Labs, we decided to call it, What’s New? instead of “boring status meeting” to keep an emphasis on things happening now, and encourage participation.

Quote about meetings that allow remote workers to understand what’s going on company-wide, so engineers feel connected.
“What’s New allows everyone to understand what’s going on company-wide.” –Joshua Webber, Product Designer

Our project leads and company founders present updates about business developments, new projects, hires, and engineering processes — and we finish up with team-wide out-of-office announcements. While our What’s New? meeting is our most top-down touchpoint at the company, our leadership team has created an environment where interruptions for clarifications and questions are encouraged. Especially as a newer employee, this has given me a space where I can ask pointed questions about anything happening at the company.

TGIF

The second weekly meeting, scheduled for one hour every Friday, is TGIF. This is another all-hands — in a way — only, it’s driven by anyone who wants to participate. Outer Labs keeps a running document where anyone at the company can sign up to give a TGIF presentation. Signing up is as simple as putting down your name, the number of minutes you’d like allotted for yourself, and a title for your talk.

The TGIF meeting is an essential part of the culture for this distributed team of architectural software engineers.
“TGIF has become an essential part of our culture.” –Karl Garske, Co-founder and CEO

We typically have two or three presenters a week, with presentations ranging from five to 30 minutes. This is a time for people to share interesting engineering problems they’re tackling, give product updates, share client presentations they’ve given and — most fun of all — talk about non-work related projects or interests.

We’ve had presentations about competitive barbeque festivals, music composition, gardening, non-profit organizations doing work during the pandemic, and experimental coding projects. It’s an opportunity to get to know one another outside of the problems we’re tackling as a company. I’ve found this meeting to be hugely rapport-building, and a way to remind ourselves of the diverse ways to solve problems in this world.

The TGIF cultural meeting provides a nice transition into the weekend while helping this remote team feel connected.
Personally, my favorite ‘cultural’ meeting is TGIF.” –Javier Vizoso, Co-founder and Director of Product

Sub-Team Processes

As a growing engineering organization, we’re split into several sub-teams. On my team, I’ve found our most important rituals to be our daily video standups and our bi-weekly retrospectives.

Daily checkpoints help remote teams feel in sync and connected with their coworkers—like standup, retros, etc.
“Reliable checkpoints in my week help me feel more connected.” –Kyla Farrell, Software Engineer

Daily Standup

Daily standup is kept to 10 or 15 minutes for the eight people on my engineering squad. It’s been important to keep these brief, and the daily repetition has created a sense of connection and ease amongst our team members. Friendly chatter gets going as the call commences or ends. We share things we’re cooking, games we’re playing (Animal Crossing), opinions we have about the best sports in the world (ice hockey, duh), and even the work-from-home conditions we’re struggling with (loud garbage trucks, needing a new monitor, and so forth).

These moments of banter and joking expose us to one another’s personalities, and help us draw connections to each other, even if we’ve never met in person. The face-time aspect really matters, too. Six months ago, we did our standup via text in our Slack channel, and there’s just no comparison to connecting face-to-face — even if it’s through computer screens.

Standup and retro are essential meetings for remote or distributed engineering teams to function effectively.
“We have to be more deliberate about making opportunities for people to connect and socialize.” Max Russell, Sr. Software Engineer

Retrospective at Outer Labs is inspired by the concept of blameless post-mortems. Every other Friday morning, our team spends an hour reflecting on the work we’ve done over the past two weeks. We think about how we’ve coordinated, supported each other, and how our processes are working for us as an organization. We kick the meeting off by each privately recording our likes and our wishes for the past two weeks.

For example:

I liked tackling X problem. I liked Y code review. I liked that so-and-so documented Z very well; it made it easy for me to pick up the problem.

I wish I had more time to write tests. I wish I understood our deploy process better. I wish I had better explained X problem to my colleague.

We use a shared digital whiteboard to display each person’s likes and wishes, and give each person a chance to provide more context for their notes. As we go, we organize our notes into different groups by theme — time management, testing, documentation, and so forth. Then, we revisit each themed group of notes. For every “I wish,” we create a “we will” action note, like this:

We will spend X day on documentation. We will schedule Y meeting to discuss our testing frameworks. So-and-so will give Z presentation on their work.

Retros are a great way for architectural software developers to come together and feel like they’re part of the same team.
“I find retro hugely helpful!” –Monica Cowan, Software Engineer

These sessions are a way for us to stay honest with one another about what’s working and what isn’t. At the beginning of the next retrospective meeting, we revisit the previous set of “we will” items to check ourselves for accountability. This process keeps us honest with ourselves and each other about what we need to improve and how we’re going about improving it.

Individual Processes

Knowing, and advocating for yourself

While I have an introverted streak and enjoy solo problem-solving time, I’ve most consistently tested as an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs spectrum (if you’re into that kind of thing 😄). I gain energy from the feeling of teamwork and I’m most productive when working toward a common goal. Being remote inherently challenges my sense of belonging; it’s easy for me to lose motivation if I feel like the work I’m doing isn’t helpful to others.

Over the last eight months, I’ve had to come to terms with how my personality traits translate into my needs as a remote employee. I spoke with my manager and my teammates about my need for feedback and collaboration. I was heartened by their accepting attitudes and willingness to work with me to find solutions — whether that’s been more code reviews, a partner-in-crime on a codebase, or other kinds of touch points on my work.

Knowing, and advocating for others

The world is made of introverts, extroverts, and everything in between. The more honest we are with one another about ourselves, the more we can create space for all ranges of personalities to participate equally. In addition to communicating my own needs and habits to my team members, I try to make sure I’m asking about, and listening for the needs and habits of my co-workers.

Working on a distributed team means finding a balance between focus time and collaborative video calls with teammates.
“I can be more present when we do meet for video calls.” — Monica Tie, Sr. Software Engineer

As a more outgoing voice, this has meant holding my tongue at times, prompting others to participate, and making sure I’m doing my part in creating equal airtime for everyone in meetings. Thinking about the things you could be doing to better acknowledge and support your own needs, and the needs of your colleagues is important in remote and non-remote work. And, different personality types have their own challenges in each environment. What are yours? What are those of your colleagues? I really believe taking the time to answer these questions will pay off.

Conclusion

Across all of these processes and reflections, the most important thing — I believe — is to find those that help to build rapport among your team members. When you’re able to build a feeling of human connection, you’re able to be more honest and communicative with one another.

The list of processes I’ve mentioned in this post certainly isn’t an exhaustive coverage of the Outer Labs rituals (for example, in non-Covid times, we also have a party planning committee and annual in-person meetups for the team), and are specific to my experience as a member of the engineering team.

Outer Labs is a growing company focused on building tech for designing, building, and operating space at scale. It’s fine-tuning as internal teams expand. As of publication, we have 17 full-time employees, with another handful of contractors that keep us under 30 total headcount. The organization-wide processes that I’ve mentioned may not work for larger teams. But, they may work for subsets of your organization.

As we all wander into a more remote-geared future, I’m eager to understand what other folks find work for them as individuals and for their teams.

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News, ideas, and knowledge from the Outer Labs team

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Camilla Mahon

Camilla Mahon

take off your fancy shoes. engineer at Upstream Tech. previously @mapbox.

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